Beyond the Duck Houses

Eliane Glaser

Ten years ago today, the Telegraph began publishing, in daily instalments, the expense claims made by British MPs over the previous four years. The humiliating examples were laid out like the yard sale of a bankrupt family: digital radios, hobnobs, light bulbs, fluffy dusters, scatter cushions, ice cube trays and toilet brushes.

The freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke had tried for years to have the receipts made public. She has described the scandal as a ‘victory’ for the people over Parliament and its ‘elitist attitude’. One effect of insisting on the ‘class’ distinction between the ‘right honourable gentlemen’ and the public ‘lower down’ was to distract from more egregious inequality. The anniversary coverage has barely mentioned that the expenses scandal occurred immediately after the financial crash. Public outrage over claims for bath plugs that cost 88p functioned as a safety valve for anger at the £850 billion spent bailing out the banks.

The widespread disgust at personally profligate MPs can only have helped arguments for austerity, which rely on the economic fallacy that a nation’s finances are like a household budget. The idea that politicians were living beyond their means at our expense made it easier for David Cameron and George Osborne to peddle the bogus notion that the state, too, was spending more than it could afford.

Most of the MPs who maxed out their allowances on luxuries at the end of the financial year were playing by the rules – which since the 1980s had encouraged them to ‘fill their boots’ in lieu of a pay rise – but several were found guilty of false accounting and mortgage fraud; some were jailed.

From coffee spoons to dog food, many of the items claimed for were small enough for it to seem as if we were paying for MPs’ weekly shop. Mark Oaten was pilloried for claiming £5 for oven gloves. Other claims – for duck houses and moat cleaning, chandeliers and swimming pools – exposed a gulf between them and us. Anthony Steen, the former Conservative member for Totnes, ran up nearly £90,000 over four years for the upkeep of his country estate. He said voters were jealous of his ‘very very large house’. ‘One more squeak like that,’ Cameron said, ‘and he will have the whip taken away from him so fast his feet won’t touch the ground.’

The expenses scandal was the spark that ignited the anti-political rage now engulfing British democracy. It presaged Nigel Farage’s promise to ‘put the fear of God’ into MPs, the trolling and death threats, the murder of Jo Cox. As Cameron’s cut-glass vernacularism illustrates, what is referred to as ‘populism’ is often driven by an elite. The pitchforks are provided by right-wing party donors, financiers and astroturf PR men: the likes of Lord Ashcroft, Arron Banks and Lynton Crosby.

When Tony Blair first proposed a Freedom of Information Act as shadow home secretary in 1992 (he chided himself in his memoirs, published the year after the expenses scandal, for being a ‘naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop’), he promised ‘new rights to shine the light of knowledge not just through the cobwebs of Whitehall, but into the dark corners of the private sector’. This has not come to pass: ‘commercial sensitivity’ keeps companies immune. Only public bodies need be ‘accountable’.

Apparently unable to open up the private sector to public scrutiny, instead we probe the private finances of public figures. Brooke – along with the TaxPayers’ Alliance, a right-wing pressure group – warned that ‘if nobody is looking out for public money it can very easily become private money.’ But the processes by which really significant amounts of public money become private – rent-seeking, privatised utility profiteering, the use of tax havens – remain obscure.

It’s true that MPs are disproportionately wealthy, and too many are PPE graduates from Oxford. But this is circumstantial not intrinsic, the result of neoliberal policies that have compromised social mobility and weakened working-class representation. In 1979, 16 per cent of MPs had a background in manual work; in 2010 the proportion had dropped to 4 per cent. The word ‘elite’ means privileged, but it also means simply those who are elected. Right-wing populism elides the two.

A successful democracy relies on established norms and traditions, institutional checks and balances, and careful deliberation behind closed doors – all of which can appear aloof and opaque. Unless we defend and reframe them for a post-deferential age, the anti-system right will continue to undermine the only mechanism we have for enacting large-scale change. Nobody is making the positive case for what MPs should do, not even liberals, who now call for a plague on both their houses, mirroring Farage’s claim that ‘the two-party system … has been exposed as unfit for purpose’. The more we cut our MPs down to size, the less able they are to subject the forces of capital to meaningful oversight and represent our interests at a high level. Public figures become mere private individuals, with their pints of milk and their loo roll.


  • 14 May 2019 at 11:02am
    Hunneric says:
    Your points about the uses of the expenses scandal to bring the whole of politics into disrepute are fair ones. And it's a shame because there was a much bigger scandal in there that didn't get written about at the time and that was the link to the housing crisis.

    The MPs expenses regime explains almost all of British housing policy since the 80s

    Ever since then British people have marveled at the irrational behavior of the British housing market. "It can't go on like this," tedious dinner parties guests exclaim, as they stuff a little buy-to-letter into their portfolio. Meanwhile, their tenants (20% of all households now) groan under the strain of rents that now consume an average of 34% of income and Waiting Lists grow ever longer - or they did until people gave up even registering in despair.

    It's well known that our irrational housing market, benefits the rich at the expense of the poor, the old at the expense of the young. It's equally obvious that when housing consumes more of our income than the whole of the state, it is hollowing out the rest of the economy. And yet, the task of bringing the housing market to heel has never been advanced with anything approaching seriousness by any Government in decades. Until the expenses scandal, all the explanations for this curious state of affairs seemed half-hearted and superficial.

    For example, you can't reduce house prices because, the majority of voters are home owners and it's electoral suicide. Which sounds plausible, until you remember that the majority of homeowners don't actually benefit at all. Sure, it's nice when your home goes up in value but, if you ever want to buy another, that will also have gone up in value. And it's nice to contemplate all the money your house is worth but, since you're likely to continue to need a home, you can't get at the cash until your kids move out and you move to a smaller home and bank the difference. Except that very few people ever do get around to down-sizing. 5% tops. So, if you add the homeowners who don't actually benefit from the housing boom to the 30% who don't own a home, you have a huge majority, for reform.

    So, why no action?

    Well, ask yourself who really benefits in a housing boom? Those who own more than one home for purely speculative reasons.

    There's not a lot of them, admittedly - certainly too few to be an electoral force.

    But what if you had a way of ensuring that almost all parliamentarians fell into that small category?

    Again, that would be insane. The Chartists ended the property qualification for MPs in the 19th century. Didn't they? The introduction of a qualification that all MPs should own more than one home would be...

    Well, whatever it was, that's exactly what we did in the 1980s. But, instead of making it a qualification, we simply made it a bargain and a gift.

    We restricted MPs pay but, in compensation, we gave them the means to buy them a second home (in London) on expenses. Allow them to pay the mortgage and furnish it as they please, then allow them to keep the home, the capital repaid on the mortgage and the speculative gains that result, we even let them flip their main and second residences in order to capture the biggest possible speculative profit. In the first decade of this century, the speculative gains they were making would have amounted to between half and two thirds of the value of their salary.

    Our parliamentarians had (and have) a pretty unusual relationship to the property market and a vast supermajority of them belong to that small section of society that owns more than one home. There's only a tiny sliver of them who are private tenants at any time, and any who were Council tenants would lose their tenancy as soon as they bought their second home.

    It might have been indvertant but it doesn't change what we did. We build a parliament out of property speculators and then sat back and watched as house price inflation ate our economy alive.

    And the fix should have been and still is as obvious as the problem - each MP gets a Council house as their second home. If they're good enough to be 15% of the population's main home, they ought to be good enough to be an MP's pied a terre. And if they aren't, well, I expect Parliament would want probably want to do something about it, wouldn't it? Might even build a few more of them too.

    • 22 May 2019 at 12:48pm
      Coldish says: @ Hunneric
      Hunneric asks: who really benefits in a housing boom? The chief beneficiaries are the mortgage lenders, generally banks. The interest payments they receive on a 30-year mortgage can amount to as much as the original loan. And if the housing market goes pear-shaped and borrowers start defaulting in large numbers the banks know they can rely on a sympathetic ear from most governments.

    • 22 May 2019 at 1:08pm
      Hunneric says: @ Coldish
      I quite agree. My point is not that financial institutions aren't the chief beneficiaries of the housing boom - they are the shovel-sellers of this particular gold rush.

      My point was, first, how remarkable it was that the obvious downsides of this vast boom were never seriously challenged in political circles and, second, that this curious silence seems a lot less curious when you think that almost every MP in the country received around a third of their total pay in the form of subsidised housing speculation.

      The banks didn't even have to pay them - they were, in effect, bribing themselves to look the other way.